The Valentine's Day Ball

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The
Valentine’s Day Ball

by

Julia Parks

An Imprint of

The Valentine’s Day Ball, Copyright © Julia Parks, 2013

All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher.

This book is a work of fiction. While references may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters, incidents, and locations within are from the author’s imagination and are not a resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any similarity is coincidental.

Musa Publishing
633 Edgewood Ave
Lancaster,
OH
43130
www.MusaPublishing.com

Published by Musa Publishing, February 2013

This book is licensed to the original purchaser only. Duplication or distribution via any means is illegal and a violation of International Copyright Law, subject to criminal prosecution and upon conviction, fines and/or imprisonment. No part of this book can be reproduced or sold by any person or business without the express permission of the publisher.

ISBN
: 978-1-61937-551-2

Published in the United States of America

Editor: Elaine Golden
Artist: Dawn Marsh
Line Editor: Amanda Kay
Interior Book Design: Cera Smith

Chapter One

“H
ow can you be so calm about it, Jane?”

“Because, my dear, it is not the end of the world. You will have many balls when the Season begins.”

“Perhaps, but this is the most important! All the Heartland ladies in our family have met their husbands at our Valentine’s Ball when they were just eighteen. And here am I, dressed in blacks and stuck behind this blasted screen where
he
cannot even find me!”

The indignant Miss Cherry Pettigrew glared at Jane Lindsay, her older cousin. Jane, who often found her cousin’s dramatic utterances amusing, held up one hand in an attempt to stem Cherry’s fierce retort.

Swallowing her laughter, Jane said, “Cherry, come now, do not be angry with me. I know this is not easy, but you should learn to look on the bright side. After all, we are lucky your mother thought it proper of us to even hold the ball this year since we are not quite out of mourning for Grandmother. And as for being dressed in black, I would never call this gossamer silk of silver grey exactly staid. As you well know, it is vastly fetching, which probably accounts for all the young gentlemen who have taken the trouble to leave the dancing and come over here to express their delight in your appearance.”

This last brought a coy smile to Cherry’s rosebud lips, and she pressed her Jane’s hand. “Please forgive me, Jane dearest, for being so cross. I am truly sorry.”

“I shan’t regard it. I remember, too, what it was like to worry about not being able to attend the St. Valentine’s Ball when I was your age.” Jane’s quiet laugh sounded.

Cherry returned her attention to the dancers. Jane, however, was lost in the past.  When she was eighteen, the ball had been cancelled due to her mother’s untimely demise. Hence, Jane hadn’t met her future husband, as family tradition dictated, at the ball. From Cherry’s romantic viewpoint, Jane had been doomed to spinsterhood; the girl couldn’t imagine a fate more dire. But from the age of four-and-twenty—no, almost five-and-twenty now—Jane did not view her unwed state as disastrous.  She was content with her life.

And as for Seasons in London, Jane had had two. But it had been too late; the jinx had already taken hold, and now Jane was on the shelf. Not in her dotage precisely, but she would never marry now.

Jane patted her cousin’s gloved hand, but Cherry’s face had taken on a glazed look as her smile froze on her face.

Ah, how glad I am that I no longer expect Prince Charming to waltz into my life. I shall be glad—positively relieved—when I may don a cap and no longer play these silly games men think women want to play. Not that l have ever played those games, of course.

Perhaps that fact had more than a little to do with her unmarried state
.

Again, a tiny sigh escaped her lips, but this time, it was not all for her cousin.

A sharp tweak on her skirt brought her abruptly back to the present. “Look! Who is that? I have never seen him in Bath before. Isn’t he divine?” whispered Cherry, her smile never faltering.

Jane obediently turned her attention in the direction of the dancers. Not ten paces in front of them stood a man of great height. She studied his profile as he turned to speak to his companion. The strong chin and jaw were indeed handsome, but in a forbidding way. Why would her cousin express such interest in this man?

Then he turned, his lazy gaze coming to rest on her.

Jane didn’t drop her eyes; the coy moves of the debutante were not for her. Besides, he was too busy surveying her figure to notice where her eyes were directed. She took the opportunity to study further.

His mouth reinforced her first impression: here was a man accustomed to getting his own way. His nostrils flared, and she imagined how ruthless and demanding he would probably be. And his eyes were so dark they appeared black in the candlelight, yet there was a definite light of amusement.

Then Jane realized he was studying her face just as intently. Again, she regarded him unabashedly, for she had decided long ago never to flinch from the challenge of a man’s gaze. He nodded his head imperceptibly, and then he turned to study her cousin.

And who would not? Cherry was petite, trim, and beautiful. She had golden blonde curls that clustered around her face, china blue eyes that shone with mischievous lights, and a rosebud mouth that seemed to beg for a kiss.

The stranger smiled at his companion, whom Jane hadn’t noticed until that moment. Both men turned, and it was with a start that she recognized the companion as her portly cousin, Roland Havelock.

Ha! She might have known. Well, if this mysterious gentleman—and she hesitated at the use of the word—was a friend of her despicable cousin, Roly, then he was not the future husband for Cherry.

“Here he comes!” whispered that damsel in excitement before smoothing her skirts and sitting up straighter.

The stranger stood back a little as Cousin Roland entered their cosy alcove and bowed with a tremendous creaking noise, audible over the strains of the musicians’ country air. Jane stifled her smile quickly, but she had the uncomfortable feeling that the perceptive stranger had noticed her amusement.

“How are you, Jane, my dear? And my sweet Cousin Cherry? May I say how beautiful you both are this evening?”

“If you must, Rol…Roland,” said Jane. “How nice of you to come. I didn’t realize Aunt had sent you an invitation, since you were rusticating in… You must refresh my memory. Where, precisely, were you, uh, sent?”

“I have been exploring the New World,” said Roland in strangled tones. Recovering, he continued, “You must know, Jane, that I would never miss the Heartland Valentine’s Ball. Especially this one, when my dear Cousin Cherry is to make her debut.”

“How gallant of you,” said Jane dryly. “We missed you at Grandmother’s funeral last April.”

“I was sorry to hear about Grandmother.” Roland Havelock’s florid face turned a deeper shade of scarlet, but his thick lips remained fixed in a syrupy smile. “And how is my charming little Cousin Cherry?” His tiny eyes raked Cherry from head to toe.

If one could take away some of the size of his lips and add this to his eyes, Roland Havelock’s face would be eminently more acceptable. Of course, that still left his immense girth and his taste for wearing shocking colours. His navy breeches were unexceptionable, but the satin coat of puce was revolting, and the rings of perspiration rendered it positively repulsive. Altogether an unpleasant relative. No wonder, as a child, she had nicknamed him Roly.

Again Jane’s eyes were drawn to where the stranger stood. She was surprised to find his eyes resting on her again until she realized his gaze lingered well below her chin. Not wishing to appear self-conscious—which she had always been on the subject of her questionable
blessing
—she shifted slightly and brought one gloved hand up to her chin, striking a thoughtful pose and effectively hiding the display of deep cleavage. Jane chanced a glance in the stranger’s direction. Why, he looked positively amused!

Her indignation faded as she became lost in those merry brown eyes. Cherry was right; the man was extraordinarily handsome. And he was moving toward her.

After Roland performed the introductions, Jane dropped her hand and rose, sweeping an elegant curtsey in answer to his polished bow.

“I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch your name, sir,” said Jane, her serenity returning now that she was on even footing with this disconcerting and discerning man.

“Lord Devlin, Miss Lindsay.” His voice lingered over her name, indicating that he had not been as lost as she in their silent confrontation.

“How do you do, Lord Devlin,” she said with a smile, revealing nothing of her irritation.

“Are you newly come to our area, Lord Devlin?” asked Cherry shyly.

“Yes, I’ve been in London the past six months, but before that I was in the Indies.”

“How exciting! I should love to travel to such a fascinating place!”

“Nothing but a nasty, dirty place, I do assure you, Cherry. Absolutely uncivilized. And positively sweltering!” said Roland.

“You exaggerate, Mr. Havelock,” said Lord Devlin. “Certainly one must look at the islands with an open mind, and then one can see the exotic beauty that abounds there.”

If Lord Devlin had not been so blatantly tantalizing Cherry with his words, Jane might have fallen under the spell of those piercing dark eyes and smooth voice. As it was, he appeared to be an accomplished flirt who was trying, quite successfully, to lure her innocent cousin into his web.

Quickly, she interrupted. “And is that where you met one another, rusticating in the wilds of our island colonies?”

“It is hardly rusticating when one chooses to live there for ten years, Miss Lindsay. Of course, I cannot speak for Mr. Havelock. However, in answer to your basic question, yes, we did meet there.”

Though she felt churlish, Jane could not prevent a curling of her lip. She was not fooled; she had contacts in London. Hadn’t Viscount Devlin’s history been the subject of one of her old friend’s letters a month or so past? And the gist of it was that the viscount had returned after ten years of banishment over some scandal. Arriving in London, he had proceeded to create one new
on-dit
after another.

Well, she knew how to handle rakes.

“Perhaps you would care to show me the countryside, Miss Pettigrew,” the rake was now saying. “We could make up a party and have a picnic, if Miss Lindsay could be persuaded to chaperone.” He smiled sweetly in Jane’s direction as if pretending his words had not been a direct insult.

Jane returned a grimace of a smile. “That sounds delightful. However, since we are not out of mourning, it would be impossible. Perhaps next year.”

She extended her hand, which he took in his and bowed over it. He peered up into her triumphant face, his expression conveying a promise that their exchange was far from ended.

As the two gentlemen left them, Cherry sighed. “I have never met anyone like Lord Devlin—so exciting, so worldly.”

“What about young Lord Pierce?”

Cherry pouted prettily. “He is well enough, but he hasn’t Lord Devlin’s ease of manner. Besides, he hasn’t even shown up yet.”

Jane smiled and shook her head. “Don’t worry, my dear, he is too smitten with you to stay away. He’ll be here, and the first thing he will do is present himself to you.”

Cherry tossed her head as though to say she wasn’t at all certain she would deign to speak to the errant Lord Pierce. Jane hoped her prediction would come true; she certainly didn’t want Cherry daydreaming about Lord Devlin.

What had Sally Cumberland called him in her letters?
Devilish Devlin
. And somehow Jane knew the appellation was all too appropriate.

Jane looked out across the ballroom, her gaze taking in its splendour. She gave a satisfied nod. The ballroom at Heartland had never appeared to better advantage. Clusters of hothouse flowers in shades of pink from the palest to the deepest rose adorned the walls, artfully arranged in the shape of hearts. Her grandmother would have been proud. Cream-coloured bows of silk moiré adorned the doorways and the musicians’ gallery. And presiding over everything were Cupids painted in muted tones on the ceiling. As a girl, those naughty figures had both attracted and repelled her; now, she merely wanted to laugh at their foolish antics.

Jane sighed and shifted her chair so that she might have a view of the refreshment tables. She lifted her grandmother’s brooch, which decorated her generous bosom. Touching a tiny spring, she revealed the dainty timepiece within.

“Eleven o’clock. I do hope Pipkin has seen to the supper buffet. Perhaps I should check to be certain.”

A spark of her usual liveliness leapt into Cherry’s blue eyes. “I’ll go and see for you, Jane. I must go to the ladies withdrawing room at any rate.”

Jane nodded her assent. After all, Cherry was young; her feet still itched to dance. And despite the fact that their year of mourning was not quite at an end, Cherry couldn’t be expected to act as mature and staid as…well, as Jane was.

She watched fondly as Cherry’s silvery grey gown disappeared amidst the crowd along the edge of the dancers. With her petite figure and open manners, Cherry could afford to miss dancing at this Valentine’s Ball. Cherry wouldn’t
pass her first Season without becoming betrothed.

Unlike you.

But Jane would allow no more maudlin reflections. Besides, it was not as though she had not received several eligible offers. She smoothed her lavender gown and stood up, stretching her weary limbs.

The lines of the gown she wore were simple, the very latest style from the Continent, with not a single flounce or ruffle to detract from the figure. Jane had been pleased with the effect when she had studied her image in the glass. Had it been her imagination, or did the simple lines mask her dubious charms? She had thought so until the unwelcome Lord Devlin had stared at her bosom so conspicuously.

Jane was diverted from these uncomfortable recollections by the entrance of her aunt, a short, squat lady of five and forty years who seemed to float and flutter as she moved. Would Cherry eventually come to resemble her mother?

“Jane! Where is Cherry? She isn’t dancing, is she? She agreed to behave, you remember, if we held the ball as usual.”

“Calm yourself, Aunt Sophie. She has gone to see that Pipkin has set up the buffet properly.”

“Oh. Oh, well, then, that’s fine. Just fine. I do hope she will behave.”

“You mustn’t worry, Aunt. Cherry would never do anything to disgrace herself—not before her first Season in London this spring.”

“Of course, of course. You are right, Jane. You are always so wise. Sometimes, I think we must be a sad trial for you.”

“Nonsense! Now, go and enjoy yourself. I promise, Cherry has been a pattern card of propriety all evening, demure to the gentlemen and unfailingly polite to every lady. But you can’t blame her for wanting to escape this confining alcove for a few moments. It is a trifle boring.” And that is a vast understatement.

But her Aunt Sophie said anxiously, “What about the valentine messages? Has Pipkin gathered all of them? They must be ready to distribute before the supper dance.”

“I’m sure Pipkin has seen to it. He’s been taking care of it since before I was born, you remember.”

“I know, I know. But I can’t help but worry. He has extra ones for the girls who are not sought after, doesn’t he?”

“He always does. Cherry and I helped make them. All Pipkin has to do is place the girl’s name on the envelope.”

“Good, then I can relax. Now, where do you suppose Cherry has gotten to? She should have been back by now.”

“She’s just putting off returning to our corner. Why don’t you see that our guests in the card room are entertained sufficiently?”

“If you think I should,” said Aunt Sophie, and she fluttered back into the ballroom where the musicians were striking up a waltz.

It was almost midnight. Jane spied Pipkin, attired impeccably in his black butler’s coat. He was waiting for her signal before he passed out the elaborate valentines, most of which their guests had spent weeks making with the finest lace and the most sentimental poems.

As the daughter and heir of Heartland, Jane had always received more than her fair share of the gentlemen’s offerings. Perhaps that was why she remained detached from this tradition—the cards she received were merely polite tokens, whereas the other young ladies looked on their cards as symbols of conquest.

This year would be no better—probably worse, now that she was the mistress of Heartland. But Pipkin still waited, and she nodded to signal to the old servant that it was time to begin that long-awaited tradition of the Heartland Valentine’s Ball.

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